Although the book’s focus is on the title character, the other major characters in Alice Adams are also developed and rounded. As individual as his main characters are, Tarkington uses them all to develop his ideas about the dishonesty of a social system based upon appearances and material wealth. Through his main characters, Tarkington includes all social classes, from the lowest to the highest.
At first, Alice Adams strikes the reader as merely an appealing young woman whose main concerns are the related issues of the social life of her peers and the finding of a suitable, financially sound beau. Quickly, however, Tarkington introduces the idea that will govern his novel: the search for identity. After lying to Arthur, Alice stares at herself in her mirror and asks the question, “Who in the world are you?” The book becomes the story of her quest for identity in a society in which identity is largely a construct and extension of material wealth.
Alice’s father, Virgil Adams, enjoys a naturally ethical character. His loyalty to his employer is absolute until Mrs. Adams finally breaks down his objections under the force of larger obligations to his family and its fortune. Virgil works in the “old hole,” and his name suggests Dante Alighieri’s Virgil, who serves as a guide to hell. The allusion refers both to the family’s inexorable downward slide and to Virgil’s failure or sin in ethics and judgment. Only after his fall do the family members—and the readers—realize that Virgil had been correct in his early belief that Mr. Lamb had valued him...
(The entire section is 651 words.)